A scene from one of the Planet of the Apes movies with Charleston Heston, came to mind the first time I saw the Sutro Baths. I was looking at a relic of the center of some thriving recreational activity for folks in San Francisco.
Never heard of either place? If you are not from the Bay Area, I am not surprised. These two sights are not in the vicinity of the main San Francisco attractions, they’re a bit of a bus ride or a hike into the “the Avenues” to Ocean Bean where you can dip your toe into the Pacific, but trust me, they’re worth a trip. Immediately next to Sutro Baths is Lands End, which offers up some incredible views of Marin County and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Sutro Baths opened March 14, 1896 with a $1 million pricetag — an extravagant public bathhouse developed by the eccentric one-time mayor of San Francisco, Adolph Sutro. The vast structure filled a small beach inlet below the Cliff House, also owned by Adolph Sutro at the time. Both the Cliff House and the former Baths site are now a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and sit between Ocean Beach and Land’s End, making this area worthy of a trip to the Western edge of San Francisco.
A visitor to the Baths not only had a choice of 7 different swimming pools—one fresh water and six salt water baths ranging in temperatures—but could also visit a museum displaying Sutro’s large collection of artifacts from his travels, a concert hall, seating for 8,000, and, at one time, an ice skating rink. During high tides, water would flow directly into the pools from the nearby ocean, recycling the 2 million gallons of water in about an hour. During low tides, a powerful turbine water pump could fill the tanks at a rate of 6,000 US gallons a minute, recycling all the water in five hours.
The seven pools, the stage, the seating for thousands to observe were all topped by a glazed roof of 100,000 panes of glass to allow the sunlight. Unheated seawater filled the largest the tank, and the remainder were heated to varying temperatures in ten degree increments.
Selecting which pool to enter was half the fun, determining how to enter was the other half: trampolines, flying rings, slides, swings, toboggan slides, and diving platforms surrounded the water.
Sutro held numerous events, fairs, competitions, beauty contests, and legitimate championships to keep the public coming. Less prestigious draws included appearances by trapeze acts, contortionists, dwarf boxing matches, magicians and high-diving canines.
In 1952, after loosing money every year, the Baths were sold to George Whitney, owner of Playland-at-the Beach, for $250,000. Whitney, could not make the Baths profitable and unable to keep up with the pools and pumping system upkeep, took out the swimming activities altogether. He closed the Baths down for good in 1966, and shortly thereafter, the building burned down, in what some called a suspicious fire. All that remains of the site are concrete walls, blocked off stairs and passageways, and a tunnel with a deep crevice in the middle. A developer had plans to erect a housing and shopping complex on the site, but in 1980 the National Park Service bought the land for over five million dollars, adding it to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The Cliff House
The Cliff House has experienced five major incarnations since its beginnings in 1858.
- That year, Samuel Brannan, an ex-Mormon elder from Maine, bought for $1,500 the lumber salvaged from a ship that foundered on the basalt cliffs below. With this material he built the first Cliff House.
- The second Cliff house was built for Captain Junius G. Foster, but at the time it was a long trek from San Francisco and the house was a place where mostly horseback riders, small game hunters or picnickers whiled away the day. When the Point Lobos toll road opened a year later, the Cliff House became successful as a route for carriages for Sunday outings. The builders of the toll road constructed a two mile speedway beside the toll road where wealthy San Franciscans raced their horses along the way. The growth of Golden Gate Park attracted beach travelers in search of relaxation and a glimpse of the sea lions sunning themselves on Seal Rocks, just off the cliffs.
- In 1883, Adolf Sutro purchased the Cliff House. A few years later, the Cliff House was severely damaged by a dynamite explosion when the schooner, Parallel, ran aground. The blast was heard a hundred miles away and demolished the north wing of the tavern.
- In 1896, Adolph Sutro built a new Cliff House, a Victorian Chateau, called by some “the Gingerbread Palace”. At the same time work began on the Sutro Baths.
- The Cliff House and Sutro Baths survived the 1906 earthquake with little damage but burned to the ground on the evening of September 7, 1907. Dr. Emma Merritt, Sutro’s daughter, rebuilt the restaurant in a neo-classical style that was completed within two years and is the basis of the structure seen today. In 1937, George and Leo Whitney purchased the Cliff House, complementing their Playland-at-the-Beach attraction nearby and made it into an American roadhouse. The building was acquired by the National Park Service in 1977 and became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In 2003, an extensive further renovation added a new two-story wing overlooking the Sutro Bath ruins.
The site overlooks Seal Rocks and the former site of the Sutro Baths. More than thirty ships have been pounded to pieces below the Cliff House.
Great Interior Scenes of Sutro Baths from the movie, The Line Up
One food I’d always associate with the Cliff House is the popovers. From that first visit, when an unannounced basket of steaming goodness showed up at our table accompanied by an equally welcome selection of preserves. My love affair with this tasty treat was just beginning.
A popover is a light, hollow roll made from an egg batter similar to Yorkshire pudding. The name “popover” comes from the fact that the batter swells or “pops” over the top of the muffin tin while baking.
Sound familiar? Most food historians agree that popovers are the American version of Yorkshire pudding. The batter resembles a crêpe batter, but a different cooking method generates a large air pocket surrounded by a thin layer of pastry.
To achieve the desired effect, the batter is vigorously beaten to incorporate the air pockets and then immediately baked in a hot oven so as to now allow the air the chance to escape. The heat from the pre-heated oven forms bakes the surface almost immediately creating a barrier for the air bubbles which expand as the temperature rises and gather into one monster bubble and the batter swells as a result.
Adrienne of Gastroanthropology kindly agreed to help me by developing another incredible recipe; this time for popovers. We share a love of the Bay Area, and her version of Its It was off the charts delicious. For those of you that do not know Adrienne, she is a former pastry chef at what is still considered one of the finest restaurants in San Francisco. She has spent the last few years in London and exploring life and culture in Europe, all the while offering up her incredibly tasty interpretations. I’ve been very lucky to have connected with Adrienne first via the internet, but then in person and I can just say, this is why I love food blogging. Here is Adrienne’s recipe and encourage you to check out her site.
Popovers are a bit like souffles, a little love and tender care and they rise, sky-high. Skip a step, open the oven prematurely, or slam the door shut after making that mistake and you might end up with a sunken mess. Actually, if you follow the steps and preheat your popover pans they are pretty simple and will come out perfectly. Popovers are an Americanized version of England’s Yorkshire pudding, but American popovers are always cooked in individual size. It uses only four ingredients, takes minutes to prepare and bake (minus the batter resting time), and in America is often served with butter and jam. In England its used to sop up the juices at a Sunday roast.
– 8 oz. (200g) all-purpose flour, sifted
– 3 whole eggs
– 1 egg white
– 375 ml (1 1/2 cup) whole milk
– 1 tsp salt
– vegetable oil
*this recipe will make 12 if using large muffin tins, or 9 if using a popover pan
Sift the flour and set aside. Using a hand mixer beat together the eggs and egg whites in a large bowl. Slowly add the milk, incorporating as much air as possible. Add the flour + salt and mix till combined, again incorporating as much air as possible. Strain the mixture to insure there are no flour clumps. Refrigerate the mixture for at least 6 hours or preferably overnight.
Preheat the oven to 425F. Pour 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil (a bit less if you are using a muffin tin) in the bottom of each popover cup. I use a sheet pan under my popover pan to make cleanup a bit easier. As the popover rise, some of the oil may spill over the sides.
The oil and popover pan must be hot before the batter goes in the cups. To do this place the oiled cups in the 425F oven for about 5 minutes, till the oil is almost smoking hot.
Working quickly, pour the cold batter (give the batter a whisk before using as some of the flour may have settled) into each cup, filling each cup nearly to the top. Put back in the oven for about 20-25 minutes. Use your oven light to check the progress of the popovers and don’t open the oven! They are ready when they have popped, almost so much they look like they are going to tip over and are golden brown.
Serve immediately with butter, jam or honey.